Lausanne, June 24, 2009 - Heading into the third round of
the 2009 FIVB World League this weekend, there are some familiar faces at the
top of the tables, including Brazil, Cuba and Russia.
On the other hand, there have also been some surprises,
namely the Netherlands topping Pool A ahead of defending champions the United
States, and South Korea leading on points ahead of France, Argentina and Serbia
in a tight Pool B.
Some crunch matches are on the cards Friday, Saturday and
Sunday, with some teams needing to sweep their opponents to have a chance at
making the Final Round in Serbia.
In Pool A, leaders the Netherlands take on old rivals
Italy in Eindhoven. The match-up promises to be a tightly contested one, with
the Azzurri out to make up for their lackluster 1-3 start to silence their
growing critics back home.
Dutch coach Peter Blangé is expecting a hard-fought
"These two teams are really quite equal,"
Blangé said. "On top of that, a lot of players know each other from the
Italian league and that gives a special extra dimension to the matches. I am
really curious about the duals between wing spikers Robert Horstink (NED) and
Mateo Martino, a top Italian talent with a similar style of play. It will be an
interesting weekend in many ways."
The United States, meanwhile, is happy to be on home turf
again after playing its first two rounds in Europe, first in the Netherlands
where it went 1-1, and then in Italy where it went 2-0.
The U.S. welcomes 1-3 China to San Jose, California, on
Friday and Saturday, and should feel confident not only with their historical
record against the Chinese, but also at their continued improvement at the
tournament since an opening day loss to the Dutch.
"The really encouraging thing is that we played
better every match," USA coach Alan Knipe said of the European trip.
The United States is 4-1 against China since 2004 and
40-12 since 1981.
In Pool B, South Korea, France, Argentina and Serbia all
have identical 2-2 records, with Korea topping the table by the slightest of
margins thanks to a better points ratio.
Korea travel to France this weekend, with the hosts
aiming for a sweep to catapult themselves to the top of the table. But Korea
are in a confident mood after beating Serbia in straight sets in their last
match, and according to main man Moon Sung-Min, the team's goal is the same now
as it was when the World League kicked off two weekends ago: "Our goal is,
once again, to reach the final round."
Serbia hopes history will remain on its side against
Argentina, as the Europeans enjoy a commanding lead in the head to heads,
winning 10 times against two losses, with a set difference of 34-16 at major
Serbia's Sasa Starovic said his team is looking to bounce
back at home from a tough weekend in South Korea.
"I hope we play better than last week in Korea. The
fact that we are playing at home, in front of our home crowd, is very
important," Starovic said. "Our adversaries played two fantastic
matches in France, and they are coming here with great confidence. We don't
know them that well, but I'm sure we will prepare for the matches and we will
do our best not to disappoint our fans."
In Pool C, a widening gap has emerged between the top two
teams, Cuba and Russia, and the bottom squads, Bulgaria and Japan. Cuba and
Russia, who split their two matches last weekend, are on 9 points, with
Bulgaria and Japan, who also shared the spoils last weekend, on 3 points.
That will put the impetus on the latter two teams to come
out firing on all cylinders, which will be required if they are to have any
hope of knocking off the two powerhouses of world volleyball.
Russia, whose side enjoys a very optimistic 14-5 record
against Bulgaria, expects a tough battle in Khabarovsk.
"I expect to play a very angry Bulgaria," said
Russia coach Daniele Bagnoli. "I've heard about the polemic in the
Bulgarian media after their losses and I think they must be eager to respond to
it with a good performance. That's why Bulgaria is very dangerous now."
Cuba will play their first away matches of the World
League season after two home stints against Bulgaria and Russia. Cuba takes on
Japan in Toyama in the 11th meeting between the teams since 2003. Japan has won
only once in that time, at the 1995 World Cup.
In Pool D, the only undefeated team left in the
competition, Brazil, visit Poland in a rematch of the opening round. Poland is
looking to give Brazil a much tougher time on home soil, however, with the
support of 13,000 volleyball-mad fans behind them.
"In Sao Paulo we only won a single set, but I'm
deeply convinced that this time we'll achieve much more," Poland coach
Daniel Castellani said. "I expect my team not only to play better than in
Brazil, but to really challenge the World Champions."
Further north, a bolstered Finland squad hosts Venezuela.
Three of the team's top players, Mikko Esko, Tuomas Sammelvuo and Olli Kunnari, are back to strengthen the home side as it looks to climb out of its
fourth-place position in Pool D.
Esko returns as the first setter, replacing Joni
Markkula, who conducted the Finnish attack in Venezuela and in Brazil during
the first two rounds. Team captain Tuomas Sammelvuo and Olli Kunnari will also
take back their positions as universal players.